French word of the day: Colonne vertébrale

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French word of the day: Colonne vertébrale
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

It's more than just a medical term.


Why do I need to know colonne vertébrale?

Because who knows when you will need to show some spine.

What does it mean?

La colonne vertébrale - pronounced lah coll-on vert-ay-brall - is, literally, the French version of the medical term “vertebral column”, or “spinal column” or to put it more simply "spine'.

We could get all sciencey and discuss how the spinal column is made up of 24 small bones, called vertebrae, that are stacked on top of each other, separated only by a gel-like “disc”.

But while knowing la colonne vertébrale will undoubtedly come in handy if you slip a disc, we're also discussing the metaphorical versions - which implies the backbone is a symbol of character or strength, and also the defining aspect of a person or a thing. 


Just as in English, saying “Oh, grow a backbone,” means "develop some courage" or "be brave".

You can also use the colonne vertébral to describe something as being the 'backbone' or central part of a system or a project, and in that sense it's probably more widely used than in English.

Use it like this

Le conducteur a subi de graves blessures à la colonne vertébrale - The driver sustained serious spinal injuries

Un frisson parcourut ma colonne vertébrale - A shiver ran down my spine [ie I was afraid, or creeped out]

L'économie est la colonne vertébrale de notre sécurité nationale - The economy is the backbone of our national security

Ni nerfs, ni colonne vertébrale, ni convictions - Neither nerve, nor backbone, nor convictions [former Prime Minister Manuel Valls talking about ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy].



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